Editor’s note: In this fivepart series, former ELCA Presiding Bishop Herbert Chilstrom examines the authority and interpretation of the Bible. Part four explored biblical contextualization throughout church history.

Whenever the church engages in the kind of debate we’ve explored in this series, there is a tendency for those who champion little or no change to be regarded as “conservative” and those who call for study and possible adaptation to be labeled “liberal.” Unfortunately, this penchant for attaching labels to those who disagree with us clouds the real question: How do we interpret the Bible and how much weight do we give to tradition, reason and experience?

Lutheran theologian Karlfried Froehlich addressed this question in a 1997 article in the Princeton Seminary Bulletin. Froehlich wrote about what he calls “the predicament of biblical interpretation.” He observed, as I have suggested, that, in the history of interpretation, one principle has always been at the core: “God’s action in the historical person of Jesus Christ was central to God’s plan of salvation. … Beyond that, [principles of interpretation] could show immense variation in scope, emphasis, and vital concerns.”

Froehlich also made the observation that the way we interpret Scripture will inevitably be influenced by “the articulated faith and hope of the interpreters as well as of the communities in which and for which they have operated.”

The task of interpreting the Bible is more complex than taking a text, following certain time-honored principles and coming to an obvious conclusion.

How much change can we bear?

A reading of biblical and church history makes it obvious that we do change our positions on certain matters from time to time. I have discovered, however, that whenever I make an argument such as this, there is great fear that we may give too much credence to reason and experience as agents of change. We begin to feel we are walking on thin ice.

This is a legitimate concern. And now may be a good time to insert a word of caution. It is legitimate to ask, “Whose reason? Whose experience?”

A look at two biblical passages may be helpful. In his letter to the Corinthians about the use of tongues, Paul is careful to distinguish between one’s private use of that gift for personal edification and the claim of some that it is a gift for the whole church. He concludes his advice to the Corinthian believers by urging them to “excel in [gifts] for building up the church” (1 Corinthians 14:12).

But what about those times when change is called for, for the sake of the proclamation of the gospel and for establishment of justice?

Let me appeal to a somewhat unlikely passage in Jeremiah 28. The people are living under the domination of King Nebuchadnezzar. The prophet Hananiah, an honorable man, prophesies that Nebuchadnezzar will be overthrown and there will be peace within two years. But the people wonder if Hananiah can be believed. Is he a true prophet?

The only way is to … stay together in unity until we have come to understand what God is saying to us in our generation.

Jeremiah says they will know if Hananiah is a true prophet when his prophecy comes true. To me, that never seemed very helpful. What kind of answer was that to a very sincere question?

But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. Jeremiah seems to be telling his audience that a process is involved. Yes, there are always many prophets. In the cacophony of differing voices, some seem obviously false. But others make us stop to ask, “Could there be something to what this person is saying? Is God calling for change?”

We find ourselves asking the same question that was put to Jeremiah: How can we know who is right?

The only way is to listen, to study, to pray, to have dialogue and, most importantly, to agree to stay together in unity until we have come to understand what God is saying to us in our generation. The experience of one or of a small group must never be seen as an independent source of truth. But neither must it be assumed that an endeared tradition is God’s way for our current life in the church.

As we carry on our arduous work of dialogue and decision-making, some will leave because they are impatient with the process and despair that change will ever come. Others will leave because they fear we are headed for disaster. What we must do is appeal to the broad majority to stay the course, to hold high our commitment to unity and to love one another, no matter how deep and intense our differences.

Is there a “Lutheran” way to live together?

As I said at the beginning of this series, we would be hopelessly naïve to think that there will come a time when our church will not be challenged by one issue or another. That is not the question. As we look to the future, these are legitimate questions: Can we be a less anxious church? A less contentious church? A less fractious church?

In my final report to the 1995 Churchwide Assembly, I spoke of my hope that we might “be the church with confidence.” I long for a church that will not be hobbled by threats to withhold support whenever something happens that is contrary to our personal preference. I long for a church that is so single-mindedly focused on our mission of proclamation and our call for justice that we will have that kind of confidence, that kind of unity, that kind of love for the world and for one another.

Can it happen? I believe it can if we embrace as never before the pattern of the early church:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42).

Martin Luther held that the key to our use of the Bible is that Jesus Christ be at the center.

I believe it can happen if we have a broad and deep commitment to the principles that guided the early church. First, there is this word from the believers gathered at Jerusalem:

[W]e believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus (Acts 15:11).

Then there is this word from Paul to the Romans (a word I suggest every ELCA congregation include in every Sunday bulletin):

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments … are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Romans 13:8-9).

Martin Luther held that the key to our use of the Bible is that Jesus Christ be at the center. We can differ on many matters—and we do! But there is a core: the bedrock understanding that all are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

Luther insisted that the church is the creation of the Spirit. Further, he held that the Spirit works primarily though the gospel that comes to us in word and sacrament. If we can grasp this, the core of our confession, then I have hope that we can sail with greater confidence through whatever gales may lash at us in the years to come.

Herbert W. Chilstrom
Herbert W. Chilstrom was presiding bishop of the ELCA from 1987 to 1995. He lives in Green Valley, Ariz.

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